In the past two weeks, Ataye, a small town in the Oromo special administration zone of Wollo in Amhara regional state, has been burned to the ground as ethnic conflict intensified in the area. For Ataye, this is the ninth major conflict in the past four years.
“Ever since soldiers of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ginbot 7 entered Ethiopia four years ago from Eritrea, conflict has never ceased in this area,” said a displaced resident from Ataye, whose name is withheld. “They fight with the security forces of the Amhara regional state, they fight with Fano, and they fight with federal security forces.” He says that the fight between the ethnic Oromo and Amhara in the area is partly a fight to control fertile land resources in the area, apart from the fight for ethnic identity dominance.
Of course, compared to the mayhem in Wollega, another bloody ground where all areas except major towns are reportedly controlled by OLF insurgents, Ataye might seem like a sideshow. But Wollega, north Shoa, southern Oromia, Benishangul, and some parts of Amhara are the most informally militarized areas in Ethiopia. As different ethnic groups claim sole ownership of these areas, they become a haven for insurgents.
Currently, many fear such cross-border conflicts might occur even between Addis Ababa and the newly formed Sheger city, which is formed by the Oromia regional government and comprises small towns surrounding Addis Ababa. Sheger sets boundary lines between Addis Ababa and the Oromia regional state, which many say is an obstacle to the horizontal expansion of the capital.
In the past five years, Ethiopia has seen a rise in the use of potency by non-government forces. The magnitudes and numbers of the conflicts have not changed much from the past or after the Prosperity Party (PP) won the national election and overtook power in July 2021.
On average, nearly four conflicts occur in the country on a monthly basis, according to the Prime Minister’s report to the Parliament. The PM recently dubbed the conflict sponsors “Oromo Shene” and “Amhara Shene,” but they call themselves OLF and Fano. There are also other armed groups in other regions, like Benishangul Gumuz Regional State.
During his meeting with his cabinet on January 30, 2023, the PM stated the main reason behind the continuous conflicts across the country, is that the political market place is severely spoiled, and the state’s sole entitlement to coerce is eroded.
“There are so many conflicts and killings in the country. Their target is to topple the government through chaos. It will never succeed because we came to power through conflict and we know how it operates. But such conflicts continue to create chaos,” he told the cabinet members while evaluating the six-month report.
A draft document currently under preparation by the Ministry of Peace (MoP), dubbed “sustainable and holistic peace building program 2023–2033,” aims at zeroing out conflict among others. One of the main goals is to create a strong state, permanent peace, a conflict-free country, and a single political and economic community.
The document also states 400,000 people have lost their lives due to conflict and instability, which it aims to reduce to zero by the end of the 10-year program. The document admits the fact that Ethiopia’s federal structure and the constitution left ethnic border issues an open case, which has become a source of conflict.
The cost of quelling conflict has also surged in Ethiopia in the past few years, diverting the government’s expenditure from development to security apparatuses.
A weak federal government, failure to resolve ethnic and border conflicts, poor horizontal and vertical coordination of regional governments, bad governance, and the influx of armed groups are all mentioned as factors. Among the problems listed in the document are instability and lack of peace, a lack of trust in the government, attacks and divisions based on ethnicity, and generational immorality.
The document also blames federal and regional government security forces for failing to earn public trust, apart from mentioning the negative impacts on social fabrics, rising conflicts and death, a decline in investments, a lowering of government’s capacity at a national level, the absence of rule of law and foreign forces involvement.
However, experts argue that zeroing out conflict causalities is an impossible plan.
“First of all, the 400,000 deaths because of conflict figure is highly debatable. Secondly, such a plan is wrong. Conflict causalities can never be zeroed out. And ten years is a short time,” Wassihun Belay, a political-economy analyst, said.
The sources of the nonstop conflicts in Ethiopia are deep-seated in the constitution, according to Wassihun. He says it is difficult to solve the problem in ten years; even if the constitution is amended and addresses everything, it will take time to internalize and implement it fully.
“The shocks and tensions in the country cannot be stabilized in ten years. Currently, there are increasingly frustrating tensions between regional states and ethnic groups in Ethiopia. For instance, between Tigray and Amhara, Benishangul and Amhara, Oromia and Amhara, and Sidama and Oromia, we always hear of escalations.”
Though the PM stressed that power lust is the reason behind the conflicts ravaging the country, Wassihun claims the major reason is resource inequality in cross-border areas.
“Regarding peace, there is a big problem in Ethiopia. Groups create agendas that get people to kill each other. Then social media fans the flames. This is their strategy to topple the government. The political market is using ethnicity, religion, demography, and every other line as a dividing tool to make people kill each other. This is their ultimate plan to come to power,” said the PM.
However, he believes they are committing a mistake. “The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) tried to topple the Derg through a coup. But it failed because the Derg came to power through a coup, and the best thing it does is quell coups. The OLF and Ginbot 7 tried to topple the EPRDF through a guerilla fight. But it failed because the EPRDF came to power through guerrilla warfare, and nobody can beat it on this front. We came to power out of conflict, and we know how it works,” stated the PM.
But experts say most of the ongoing conflicts are occurring in cross-border areas between different ethnic groups over claims to land and resources and over development inequality. Usually, identity segregation is seen as a way to keep people from getting resources and progress, which can lead to conflict.
For Wassihun, the existing constitution has characteristics that create income inequality. “For instance, when a regional state is identified with a specific ethnic group in that region, then the resource in that region is by default given to that ethnic group.” He believes this is hindering economic flow across the whole country.
“It is against economic principle. Resources, capital, and labor cannot move freely in a country where they are limited by boundaries. It is the exclusion of resources that creates inequality, which is why different ethnic groups are excluding each other, and arming to compete for resources,” Wassihun said.
The way forward
Of course, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and regional forces are constantly engaged in combat with informal forces. However, eliminating armed groups remains a pipe dream. Instead, the forces are reportedly getting more weapons, controlling rural areas, and rendering local government structures irrelevant.
Some opposition party leaders are also demanding the government sit down for negotiations with the armed forces like OLF-Shene, while the government argues negotiations are impossible until they disarm first.
During his briefing on the Pretoria agreement for opposition party leaders a month ago, Redwan Hussein (Amb.) underscored that “it is impossible to destroy an ideology with the gun.” He stressed that there are political ideas behind the armed forces, and ideas cannot be annihilated.
The recommendations listed in the MoP’s draft 10-year peacebuilding program focus more on ensuring civility, retaining social fabrics, and ensuring individual, community, and national peace.
Experts like Wassihun, on the other hand, think that peace can only be achieved through successful interventions in many areas, including the economy.
“The first thing should be rewriting the constitution to address the cross-border and ethnic issues. Then creating institutional structures is crucial to implementing it. But the major solution is ensuring equal development and benefit for all ethnic groups living around cross-border areas across Ethiopia.”
Implementing Elinor Ostrom’s (PhD) model of “common resources” is the ideal solution to create real integration in Ethiopia’s federal structure, according to Wassihun. Ostrom is an American political-economy scientist who won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her new ideas on successful economic governance within divided communities.
For instance, competing ethnic groups living on the borders of Ataye, Wollega, Dera, Diredawa, Welkait, Sidama, or Addis Ababa, as per Ostrom’s model, can be integrated through a pooled development approach. Ostrom’s model has been tested and proven effective. A common pool of finite resources is used for the collective development of the cross-border communities, without government or private control.
For Wassihun, this is the perfect model the Ethiopian government should adopt in a bid to integrate cross-border ethnic groups and attain permanent peace in Ethiopia’s federal system. For instance, if there is a water resource, grazing land, fertile land, mining place, or any other resource on border areas of different ethnic groups, there must be a mechanism that enables all groups on that border area to benefit from the resource equally. If there is a river shared by two communities on either side of a border area, one of the communities can use the river today and the other community the next day.
Drawing a clear demarcation between ethnic groups and regional states in Ethiopia, according to Wassihun, will complicate the problem and be detrimental to Ethiopia’s nation-building efforts. Instead, the ethnic differences will become less important as the communities on both sides of the border work together on development projects and share resources.
For instance, behind the recent conflict in Ataye is the scramble for the scarce natural resource along the border between Amhara and Oromia. Such problems worsen, especially if the exact demarcation is outlined in the constitution.
Instead, empowering a pool of elders—willing and respected representatives from both sides of the cross-border communities—to monitor and control the equal usage of resources is recommended. Government institutions and service providers must also devise a formula for all communities to develop equally.
Wassihun says different communities that have common development projects and fairly shared resources will protect and nurture each other instead of fighting each other. He also thinks that norms and conduct are also necessary to maintain peace between those communities.
For him, such issues cannot always be solved by government intervention. “Thus, a group of elders from both sides must be empowered to settle conflicts through negotiation,” added Wassihun.